“Everybody must give something back / For something they get”
—Bob Dylan, “Fourth Time Around”
On Writing (about climbing)
Writing is my job. People seem to be impressed by that when the inevitable “So what do you do?” happens at the crag or a party. But I guess the only other jobs I’ve had were as a dishwasher and restaurant manager, so I don’t have much to compare the reactions to.
by Luke Mehall, published in Volume 14 of The Climbing Zine (art by Senior Contributor, Rhiannon Williams)
Anywho, writing is actually easy; it’s the mental aspect of becoming a writer that’s the hard part. Believing in the dedication to the craft and having a mentor to encourage you seem to be two essential things. Then you have to sell the damn words—that’s another cruxy part. Ain’t much of a living in being a freelance writer, not much more than the dishwashing gigs, but there are some outliers out there. Kendrick Lamar seems to be doing all right.
Saying that writing is my job is a lie—writing is my habit. Truth is, I make most of my living as a publisher. I pay for my writing habit by publishing. I gotta write, man. It’s just in me and coming out one way or another. Same with climbing. I have to climb. I’d be a nutcase without those two.
So I made this goal to have five books written by the time I turned forty, and it’s looking like that’s gonna happen. Impressed? You might be—but if you knew the old me, you’d know I didn’t accomplish much for the first thirty-five years of my life. “Living’s mostly wasting time,” Townes Van Zandt said.
Damn, I believed that for some time. Wasting time in climbing areas is a damn fine way to live though. But living there can be cruxy. I just said cruxy, didn’t I? Maybe my editor will take it out. Editors don’t like it when you use the same word over and over again.
Yeah, I have an editor. And I’m an editor. We all need someone to double-check our shit—my editor, Lindsey Nelson, has been editing my shit for a while. Since it was shit, literally. Back in 2000. When my poetry was good but my writing lacked knowledge of the craft. Twenty years go by, don’t they? If you’re lucky. Lindsey is the shit. She knows when to let me break the rules and when to reign the words back in.
The point of this ramble is to write some vignettes. I’ve got the rough draft done of my fifth book, The Desert, and you’d think that after five books, I’d have written down all the stories. But there’re these random ones, these ones I’m about to tell you. The important moments that don’t fit into a certain narrative. Like when you meet your hero, even if you didn’t really realize it before meeting that person. But, like, what’s a hero, man? Peter Croft is pretty damn close. So is Jimmie Dunn. So was K-Bone.
These are my vignettes
K-Bone, Kalous, and The Rainbow
Chris Kalous of The Enormocast is a friend in the climbing world, yet we’ve hardly climbed together. Just this one time actually.
I’ve got quite a few friends from the climbing world that I’ve seldom, if ever, tied in with. It’s because we’re in the climbing industry, and we’re always working when we meet up: at a climbing festival, a film festival, or a trade show. Climbing and the outdoors is the bond, but that bond has not been cemented by the kinship of the rope yet.
Kevin “K-Bone” Volkening was one of those cats. We met at a trade show—he was working for Black Diamond, and I was about four volumes into The Zine. He was so stoked when I handed him a copy of Volume 4 I couldn’t believe it. I was not so sure The Zine would make it at that point. His enthusiasm reminded me of the enthusiasm I once had for the project. I was stumbling along trying to get the business side to line up with the artistic side. I’ve always been more artsy-fartsy than “I’m a business, man.” I’m more Talib Kweli than Jay-Z.
K-Bone had this jet fuel of stoke. He loved Indian Creek above all. We talked about The Creek every time we saw one another. We made those casual plans to meet up that one makes at these sorts of trade shows, when we’d rather be climbing, but we’re in the business of climbing, so we talk climbing and do business.
K-Bone died before we could ever tie in together. I take a little bit of his stoke there every time I go to The Creek though—at least, I hope I do. Can’t take this stuff for granted.
Chris Kalous and I have seemingly been living in parallel universes. We’ve climbed at all the same spots. We both went to the college in Gunnison, and we both spent a ton of time in Indian Creek. Somehow, we didn’t ever really connect until he started his podcast and I started my zine. He actually saw The Zine for the first time in Colombia, after some friends, D. Scott Borden and Keith Brett, left a copy there.
I’m pretty sure our pitch count will never break our number of beers drank together. Finally though, a couple autumns ago, the stars aligned, and we made plans to meet up.
It was right after the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. As a kid, sports were all that mattered. The first words I learned to read were from our local sports paper in Illinois. Kalous is from Illinois too. I don’t choose to spend my time watching sports much anymore, but you can be damn sure I tuned in to that game. Couldn’t figure out how to stream it, so I listened on the radio. It was a wild win. The Cubs finally did win. First World Series victory since 1908!
Some say the Cubbies were cursed, and those folks might say the curse was lifted when they won. I disagree. Because, just days later, Trump was elected. And who could still be celebrating a sports victory after we got stuck with that bastard?
This was that sweet time period when the Cubs were champions, and America didn’t yet have Trump as president. And just before Bears Ears National Monument was declared.
We hike up to the wall, and just as we’re all getting racked up and ready to climb, a massive rainstorm breaks out. Luckily there’s a little cave to hide in. And in this cave is a chimney I’d been eyeing for a little while. So without much pause, I convince Kalous to give me a belay while I try to put this thing up.
Kalous has put his fair share of Creek routes up, and he gives his opinion about what lies overhead. “You definitely don’t want to get in that crack to the left,” he says. “Looks sandy and loose.”
So I go straight up the middle; I get about fifteen feet up this thing and decide I want to drill a bolt. “Go a little higher,” he encourages.
I don’t have any gear in, but for some reason, I listen to him. “Can you give me a spot?” I whine.
I make a few more moves and ask for him to send up the drill. He does. And then I start to hear some murmuring from our friends outside the cave about this rainbow. The rain has ceased, and everyone is gathering to look at the sick rainbow. We can’t see it because we’re in this cave.
I haul up the drill and organize the kit. Blow tube and brush, wrench, hammer, bolt. I make a hole and hammer the bolt in. Cool, Kalous, I’m almost done. Kalous? Are you down there?
Kalous is nowhere to be found.
He’s left the cave and is looking at the fucking rainbow!
This is the guy who with every podcast ends with a speech on safety and how important it is to check your knots and your partners’ knots. And here I am on a new route getting taken off belay without announcement!
Anywho, the chimney goes at a mere 5.9, and we give it the name Holy Cow, Cubs Win! after the infamous Cubs announcer Harry Caray, who used to drink a beer for every inning played. He died many moons ago, and if he’d still been alive, he surely would have had a heart attack in 2016 after that epic victory.
Since I aided off one of the bolts to drill another bolt at the crux, a free ascent remained, and my friend Bonnie McIntyre, who visits every year from Squamish, looked at the line with curiosity. Go for it, Bonnie, we encouraged her! And she did. She said it was her first pure chimney lead, and we were stoked for her. The rack for the fifty-foot chimney: three quickdraws. Not a single place for gear. If you get on it, don’t blame me for the high first bolt!
Kalous and I have yet to tie in again. Maybe the Cubs have to win another World Series or something?
Sketchy Belayer Dude
The International Climbers’ Festival in Lander, Wyoming, is a blast. A crew from The Zine goes every year. The Royal We, plus some. Wild Iris gets crowded, but people are friendly, and you can still get some pitches in. Each year we try to get a little more climbing in than we did the year before. We’re getting better, visiting earlier and earlier before the festival each year.
The Saturday of the festival is usually the biggest day out at The Iris. I love that crag. Slightly hungover from the festivities the day before, we had just a few hours to climb before I had to be back in town for the keynote presentation. I was the warm-up act, and that night, I would share the stage with Paul Piana, Angie Payne, Nina Williams, and Peter Croft. I wouldn’t say I was overly nervous—I love being onstage—I just wanted to make sure I could gather my thoughts properly beforehand. A couple nights before, I lay awake in bed in the middle of the night with panic—What would I say; what would I say? But, by the time the big day rolled around, I knew what I would say.
In close quarters, we warmed up. We forgot one of the ropes, so our team of four had to carefully choose our climbs so that we could lead on each end and set up topropes. At some crags, that could be a challenge. At Wild Iris, not so much. There’s an abundance of shorties.
Over to our left was a crew that clearly didn’t have much climbing experience. But, there’re a lot of people at this fest who are just getting into climbing. No judgment. We all gotta start somewhere. Then I saw something I never thought I’d ever see.
Earlier when I was writing about Kalous and his rainbow-distracted belaying, I was obviously joking. I was never on belay because I didn’t have any gear in, thus Kalous never actually took me off belay. I was at a 5.6 stance and drilling a bolt. Once I got that bolt in, Kalous returned and put me on belay. The devil’s in the details.
Here, with this belayer—we’ll call him iCantbelay—his buddy was sketching out above the first bolt on lead, and the belayer was looking at his fucking phone! Not just looking at it but completely mesmerized—you know that look, the one that nothing else but what’s on this screen matters. Inner rage boiled inside me. Sure, you can tell someone if their carabiner is not locked, or something like that, but what was my job here? Do I need to tell this guy he should probably focus on his buddy who is Elvis-ing out that he needs to pay attention to belaying and not whatever the hell is going on on his screen? Isn’t that fucking obvious?
In the end, the guy finally put the phone away, and we moved on to one last climb for the day.
The Climbers’ Fest is high on psych—sky high—but at the last minute before the presentations that night, it reminded me of a crowded belay with several tangled ropes. Except that the ropes were various USB drives and laptops, and the master plan needed to be devised for the audience of a few hundred that would be there soon.
Peter Croft just stood back from it all, like he’d seen this a million times before and everyone would figure it out—it wasn’t his problem. Of course, I had to say hi to Peter Croft; I mean, it’s Peter Croft.
“I’m Luke. I’m the warm-up act for tonight,” I told him.
“I’m Peter,” he said.
“I know who you are,” I replied.
Was that a stupid thing to say? I thought. I never want to be a fanboy when I meet famous climbers. Last year, when I met Tommy Caldwell at the Climbers’ Fest, I tried to talk to him about writing, tried to not say to him what everyone else does. The thing is, these famous climbers don’t remember what they say to us; they can’t remember a million different small talk conversations. But then we always remember what they say to us. Tommy is our LeBron James, and we get the chance to talk one-on-one at events like this.
Tommy told me how difficult he thought writing was. I told him I was addicted; I had to write—or at least try to—every morning of the workweek. He’s pretty much the nicest guy ever. So is Peter.
The thing about Peter was this purity. His enthusiasm was still so pure for climbing, after forty-some years of it. Here standing in front of me was the guy who I saw pictures and videos of soloing Astroman and The Rostrum, when I couldn’t wrap my mind around leading 5.8 trad without getting totally freaked out. The man who teamed up with John Bachar and climbed El Cap and Half Dome for the first time in a day and looked casual at the end of it.
That night, Peter had the crowd in the palm of his hand. He was a stand-up comedian, a motivational speaker, and whatever else you wanted him to be, all rolled up into one. He brought us to Squamish, to Pakistan, and back to Yosemite. His stoke was lightning, he invoked a dreamlike state, and he made you want to go out of that conference room and achieve all your dreams.
“Leave them wanting more,” he told me before we gave our presentations for the night. And the crowd did—whatever God there is that created Peter Croft was doing something right that day. He is climbing royalty, and he’s still here, living the dream.
I’m turning forty this December. Over the hill has a different sort of meaning to the climber, but all of a sudden, forty doesn’t sound that old anymore. I guess that it’s all relative. It’s crazy to me that I’ve been climbing half my life, for twenty years. It seems more like ten years—time is wild like that. I’ve always felt young in the climbing world; I guess our predecessors set the standards really high; I’ve always felt humbled by most of the climbers’ steps I followed in. I guess I’m not that young anymore, because the younger generation now looks to us for our routes and our stories. That trips me out.
Validation for me is the acceptance of those legends. I recently met Jimmie Dunn; he came to a presentation I did in his home of Colorado Springs. Stewart Green and Keith Reynolds were there too. Stewart has been kind to me, sharing photos and stories whenever I’ve asked. Keith was the first guy I ever saw put a new route up, Disco Machine Gun at Battle of the Bulge. It was my first trip to the desert in 1999. Timmy O’Neill once called him “the strongest climber of Indian Creek.”
Jimmie has the wild eyes. He was so kind to me, and he seemed proud of the new routes that our crew had been establishing in Indian Creek. I’m still processing the profundity of meeting him; there was just something special to it. There are names in climbing that we recognize because they are pioneers, and then there are the experiences of actually meeting these people.
At the time of writing this, the fall climbing season is just on the horizon. It will be halfway through by the time we print this. Autumn, when the leaves on the trees are as yellow as a freshly painted stripe on the highway, is special, nostalgic, and fleeting. Climbing is a gateway to access the gifts this planet can offer.
Luke Mehall is the publisher of The Climbing Zine. His fifth book, The Desert, is now available.
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